I took in a BP Special Exhibition at The British Museum today. (Yes, that is the same British Petroleum that played a part in the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. BP may be less than perfect when it comes to the integrity of their wells, but they score high marks for their contributions to the art world. BP annually sponsors a thought-provoking photography exhibit at the National Portrait, and it is they who have brought “The Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead: a journey through the afterlife” to The British Museum.
One aspect of ancient Egyptian burial practices (think back to 3,000 BC when the text was inscribed on the tombs and coffins), is that offerings such as food, drink, symbolic totems, and the leg cut from a living calf were placed in the sarcophagus. After the deceased had been mummified, 70 days would pass before he or she would pass (or not) to the next life.
Many cultures do this, but I found myself wondering what I would like people to throw into my coffin? What would keep me amused while I waited out my 70 days? Items that came to mind include the following: a computer, a dozen Snickers bars, a couple of cans of premium coffee, a goose down pillow, a fleece blanket, pictures of my family, and a reading light with extra batteries- battery life is usually shorter than advertised and 70 days is a long time. As for books, maybe an anthology of poetry. When I finished reading the poems, I could begin to memorize my favorites.
- List some of your favorite things that you would like to take with you to the afterlife or…
- Write a scene in which you are in your coffin and people are bringing gifts for the afterlife. Some of the gifts hit the mark; others fall short. You could write a running commentary as the gifts are presented or…
- Write a funeral scene – either at the memorial service or at the grave site. You could write it from the point of view of the deceased or through the eyes of a loved one or…
- Why stop with just one point of view? Involve a number of friends, sitting together at the wake or after the funeral. They are telling stories of the deceased. Don’t forget to have someone say, “She looks better in death than she looked in life.”
The exhibit was very well-organized, but I must say that every time I go to an exhibit in the Great Reading Room, I grit my teeth. In 2006, a temporary floor was installed above the desks in the Reading Room. The false floor would provide space to house temporary exhibits. What a loss!
Many a day I’ve spent sitting in the Reading Room trying to channel the talents of those who had gone before. And whom might they be? Well… Karl Marx, Oscar Wilde, Mahatma Gandhi, Rudyard Kipling, George Orwell, George Bernard Shaw, Mark Twain, Lenin, Arthur Rimbaud, H.G. Wells, and the high priestess of any woman who wants a room of her own… Virginia Woolf.
I am seriously annoyed that the Reading Room is currently buried beneath this exhibition space. I asked today about the Reading Room’s future. As I type, a permanent five-story exhibition space is being excavated adjacent to The British Museum. When it is completed in 2013 (2014 or 2015 or…), the Reading Room will be restored to its original function.
Originally, the spells that constitute the Book of the Dead were carved on the walls of the pyramids and the inner and outer surfaces of the coffins. But about 1500 BC, scribes began writing the spells on papyrus. (A bit of commercialization saw scribes writing out the spells and leaving blanks so that the “books” could be sold – and in the event of death, the deceased’s name could be inserted.)
In total, 200 “spells” were thought to facilitate safe passage to the netherworld. I copied a couple of them. My favorite concerns the heart. To pass through to the other side, the ancient Egyptians believed that their heart would be placed on scales where it would be balanced against the feather of truth.
In spell 30B, the deceased speaks to his heart: “Do not stand up as a witness against me, do not be hostile to me in the presence of The Keeper of the Balance… do not tell lies about me in the presence of the god.”
When the 70 days were up, the gods would hear the deceased protest his innocence of wicked acts, and the heart of the deceased would be placed on the balance scale. If he was declared “true of voice,” he would be admitted to the netherworld (an idealized Egypt) where he would be reunited with his family.
If, however, his heart outweighed the feather of truth, the heart would be eaten by The Monstrous Devourer which had the head of a crocodile, the front legs of a lion and the back legs of a hippopotamus.
I love this notion of having the truth of your heart weighed against the truth of a feather. As I watch Egypt teeter on the brink of Civil War, I’m left to wonder how many hearts will be going on the scales and which of those will pass the test.